Monday, 13 November 2017


Catherine wrote this a while ago...   

Carrots. One of the few veg both my children enjoy. Fortunately, carrots are a basic food item. You can find them everywhere.... 

Simple I thought. Easy. Just go online, type in a list, select the ones you want from the vast selection that will undoubtedly be displayed, pick a delivery slot and Bob’s your uncle. Or aunt – I don’t want to make assumptions. (speaking of which, no, I haven't gotten lazy, Asda was being rebuilt following a fire...)

Online I go. Typed in ‘carrots’. Nothing. So I dropped the 's' and searched for ‘carrot’. Nothing. I searched for ‘bag of carrots’. Yay, result – except it was a bag of peeled and chopped carrots. So I searched for ‘loose carrots’ – I mean, I’d prefer carrots with sound morals, but if loose ones were all they had, then I was getting desperate. 

But still nothing.  I searched for ‘root vegetables’ for ‘orange vegetable’ and on and on....... Nothing. I took a deep breath and moved on. I searched for loose tomatoes, tomato, tomatoes, salad vegetables... but the system clearly had an aversion to orange things unless they were frozen or cut up already!  

Life’s too short, I could have driven to the Stevenage store and picked them myself by this point, so, I put the rest of the order through because I saw you could add stuff later.  Guess what? Having placed the order and booked the slot, when I tried to add items to my order – nothing. So just for ‘fun’, I started a new order and miraculously carrots, tomatoes and many other orange items appeared, but I didn't want a new order.  I wanted them added to the order I had.  

Naively, I called the helpline.  Here's how it went. Think Basil Fawlty: 

Me: “I want to add carrots, unpeeled, plain, basic carrots to my existing order
Help: “Just put it in the search and add them” came the reply. 
Me: “I don't think you’re understanding me. I have searched 15 different ways, logged in and out, but it won't show me any carrots, unless I create a completely new order”.  
Help: “Please type in carrots in the search.  Have they appeared?” 
Me: “Nope, like I said it isn't working! 
Help: “Can you turn off your phone?” 
Me: “Not without stopping this call” 
Help: “Try typing in carrots.”  
Me: “Yep I just plain simple carrots are appearing” 
Help: “ok type in this code.” 
Me: “Yep done that and it just says ‘sorry we can't find that product number...please try a different search.’”
Help:  “Ah...what code did you put in?” 
Me: “Look I put in the code you said, but it isn't working. All I want is carrots and tomatoes added, if you can see them, please just add them to my order.” 
Help: “I am sorry I can't do that.” 
Me: “Well what can you do then?” 
Help: “Sorry we are not authorised to add things to orders - or do anything really” 

and with that, they hung up.

Well, this isn’t a rant against Asda or Customer Service staff (although if any of you are reading, please can I have some carrots and tomatoes?)  It’s about systems and assumptions that prevent relationship.  Now I get that systems can help relationships but if the system replaces relationship, it doesn't work.  It doesn't allow individuality.  And everyone is trapped, unable to solve the problem because often, it requires relationship to solve problems.  It requires listening ears without assumptions or reacting to the surface frustration but hearing the heart. I realised that the ‘helpline’ person was relating as if to an incompetent customer and I was relating to an inflexible system with a patronising ‘front-end’.  But I’m not incompetent and no doubt they are nice, probably stuck in a thankless job supporting a pretty poor system.

That’s the tragedy. So often we end up not relating to a person, but to the assumptions we have made about the person. So often the juggernaut of the system imposes itself between the actual people. When the problem became more complicated than following the script, the person hid behind the system “not authorised, can’t help” and hung up. How convenient it is to blame some external force, how easy to hide behind the impenetrable shield of the ‘rules’. We pick up the phone and a person speaks to us – it appears like a relationship with another human being – one with intelligence and feelings, one capable of empathy and action. Then situations arise outside the system’s parameters, insecurity drives us further into the system making us less and less a person. In the end, we close ranks, follow protocol, we cease to speak as an individual and hide behind policy. Suddenly we’re no longer relating to a person, we’re relating to a system.

There’s one other thing that people have over systems. They can acknowledge that they are wrong. Systems assume that if something isn’t right, you are the one causing it. Just like in Carrot-Gate. Obviously if you type in ‘carrots’ the system will display carrots. If it doesn’t, you must have made an error. Or 15. And the individual trying to help you is trapped by the system and the system mentality into assuming that you are incompetent, and therefore capable of being disconnected. By contrast, it was great to hear the second person I spoke to admit there was a problem with the system. I still didn’t get any carrots, the outcome was the same, she still had no authority, but she apologised on behalf of the company and it made all the difference. She didn't hide behind the system, she was honest about what was abundantly obvious to anyone looking in.  She had no solution, but relationship doesn't always need a solution. Honesty and empathy dissipated the frustration.  It said “I have heard you. I have heard your heart. I have heard your frustrations. I have heard your story and we agree on the truth.” How I wish the guy I spoken to earlier had got this instead of making me feel incompetent before cutting me off!

Why am I going on about this?  It is the saddest thing when you start out relating to a person, growing in friendship and trust, only for them to morph into an impersonal, inflexible system. Deeply sad when people relate to you based on who they assume you to be rather than who you actually are. When the rules, the system, is all you can address until finally, they hang-up.

If you relate to any of what I've written, know this. God never relates on the basis of assumption. He knows you, He gets you. He adjusts to who you are and relates to you personally. And when you relate to Him, you are relating to a Father who loves you, not a system. You are relating to the person of Jesus, not the rules He came to displace. You are relating to the Holy Spirit who isn't constrained by pre-set solutions. He never hangs-up on you.

Anyway, enough for now, I need to go and hunter-gather some carrots...

Wednesday, 31 May 2017


The good news is not that we won’t die, we will. The good news is that death does not have to be the final word. We will all die, but in choosing to ‘die to self’ in this life, we become alive in Christ. In believing in Jesus we are raised to new life. The death of our body is no longer the defining moment, no longer the end-point of our existence.

Similarly, with guilt and condemnation. The good news is not that we will never have to feel guilty or condemned, we will. If we hurt someone, if we let them down, speak badly about them, lie to them, abuse them in some way, then we should feel guilty. What we did was wrong and if we have any goodness in us, our conscience will condemn our actions. And rightly so. The good news is that these do not have to be the banner that is written over our life.

I’m not talking about things we feel guilty about but for which we have no responsibility. The enemy loves to weigh us down with guilt and condemnation that is not deserved and sometimes we receive the burden rather than rebuking the enemy and brushing ourselves down. I’m talking about those times when we know we got it wrong, when we absolutely were the cause of the problem, the pain, the hurt. Times when we rightly feel the weight of guilt, because we are guilty.

The good news is that the agony of these feelings no longer has to define us or control us. Because of Christ’s work there is a means of forgiveness. A means by which we can be forgiven by God and by which others can forgive us. We can confess our sin and repent of it – to God and to those who we have hurt. We can offer restitution and we can be forgiven and set free.

At the risk of making us feel guilty, I wonder though, if we have become too keen to absolve ourselves and others of these painful feelings, quoting “There is now, no condemnation….” but applying it too quickly, short-cutting the process by which we receive that freedom.

I don’t believe that the Gospel is a ‘get out of jail free’ card. It doesn’t give us a licence to behave selfishly without facing the consequences, it doesn’t mean we can do wrong, press the ‘I am saved’ button and have our painful feelings of guilt and condemnation removed without due process.

Being forgiven for what we have deeply felt and owned – all of the responsibility, the grief, the horror, the guilt, the right condemnation, is a transformational experience. Forgiveness received in this way isn’t on the glib basis of “it’s alright, it doesn’t matter”, or a trite response to a favourite verse. It isn’t an analgesic to hide the pain without dealing with the cause. It is a true and deep cleansing, won at immense cost.

And knowing that does two things. It builds a barrier to us doing the same again and it deepens the love we have for those who have so graciously and expensively, forgiven us. Then, and only then, can we experience the wonder of guilt removed and condemnation replaced with acceptance and renewed relationship.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

A New Way To Balance the Budget

I read through all the manifesto’s last week. Well, I glanced at them. Ok, I saw the headlines about them. My conclusion, based on this detailed analysis? They all cost a lot of money. Which invites the question ‘How do we raise such a lot of money?’

The standard approach seems to be through taxation.  Basically, you charge people for the services that they benefit from, in return for which they get access to those services and the right to vote. Sounds like a plan to me. Except within that there seems to be an untested mantra that those who have more money should pay more. Now I’m the one who used to take a copy of Socialist Worker into the Insurance Broker that I worked for and have never voted for anyone further right than a Lib Dem. But this strikes me as not well thought through. Maybe it's one of those things that we’ve all heard said so often that it becomes received wisdom.

But why? Would this be reasonable anywhere else? If I go to Asda (reopening soon, hurrah) and buy the same items as the person next to me, how would they react if they were charged more, simply because they had more disposable income than me? If they want a better product, they are free to choose to go to Waitrose and spend some of their disposable income there. But why should they have to pay Waitrose prices for Asda quality, just because they have the money?

The well-off don’t receive better education if they use the state school system or better health care through the NHS, nor are they better defended by the Army, just because they are rich. Of course they can buy private education or health-care and they may buy security by paying for insurance or a nice living location. But in making those choices and not using public services, they reduce the burden on them, freeing them for others to use. In which case an equally sound (ie not very) argument could be made that those choosing to spend their money in that way should pay lower, not higher, taxes.

Now, I know some will bridle at such a thought, because it seems unfair. The rich can afford to make those choices, the poorer cannot. But that is an argument about whether the rich deserve their riches or not, it’s a “We don’t have as much as those rich ***** so we’ll find a legal way of redistributing the wealth”. But this lacks integrity. If the problem is inequality, then justify that position and spell out policies that address it, don’t hide behind the urban myth that it is intrinsically right for those who have more to pay a disproportionate amount more than those who have less. (The argument “those who have more should contribute more” is entirely sensible – but they already do, even if they are taxed at the same rate.)

There are other pragmatic considerations too. Not just that the rich will push off to somewhere friendlier, but also for those who stay. If a company has 110 employees, 10 of whom are on the higher tax rate, then in order to give everybody £75 more in their pocket requires the company to increase the pay of the higher tax payers by more than that of the lower paid. (£125 vs £100) For the same outlay, if everyone was on the same tax rate, all the employees would receive a £77 after-tax increase, £2 more than they would otherwise have received. Given a fixed budget, most employees lose out by having some on a higher tax rate, even if the company is seeking to be egalitarian!

A thought then on how we might fund the manifestos: Each party starts a crowd-funding page via Facebook. The party that gets the funding for their policies first, becomes the government. Not only does it solve the shortfall, it could replace the election entirely.

Genius, I think.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
And all the King’s Horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

Profound stuff, an egg, fallen from a ledge, splattered on the floor, the shell in pieces, the yolk and white mixed, no wonder it was beyond anyone to fix, including the King!

But it isn’t about an egg, it’s about you and me. We fell too, not from a ledge, but from loving relationship with God. And it cracked us open, breaking our bodies, spilling our souls and leaking our spirits. 

And all the NHS, all the celebrity advice, all the world’s wisdom can’t put us back together again.

The good news is that the God, who we rejected, still loves us, still knows how we were uniquely knit together still knows how to unscramble us and make us whole. 

There’s never been anything more broken than Jesus on the cross. So disfigured in body and soul that he barely looked human anymore, so utterly forsaken that His spirit cries out in agony. Yet having borne our sin and shared our suffering, He is completely healed and even though He was dead, becomes alive again.

The Humpty Dumpty that is me, seemingly broken and beyond repair is eminently mendable by that same God. “The power that was at work, raising Jesus from the dead, is now at work in you”

Monday, 8 May 2017


Imagine that a dangerous criminal had escaped from a nearby prison. The news is full of it, warning people to be prepared. They show a photograph and advise anyone who sees the fugitive to stay clear and call the police immediately.

Later in the day there is an unexpected knock on the door. It’s insistent and disconcerting. Your awareness is heightened and you leave the security chain on as you gingerly open the door a fraction. With relief, you realise it isn’t the escaped convict. The identikit photograph was of a young man and this is a middle-aged woman. She is obviously distressed. She says that she felt like she was being followed and had heard the news about the escaped prisoner. She asks if she can come in and call the police. Sympathetically you open the door and let her in, seeing too late the gun being brought up, ready to use. Your final thought is to wonder how you were supposed to be prepared when the person was so different to the picture.

When Jesus comes ‘as a thief in the night’, unexpectedly and suddenly, I wonder if people will have the same reaction? As church, we are ‘the body of Christ’. We are supposed to be the living photograph of Jesus. If we got people to describe Jesus from what they saw of church, what would the 'identikit' look like? A well-meaning group, trying to do some good with limited resources? An insular, fractious and judgemental group that lost any relevance it might have once had? 

Or would it look like Jesus - one who is self-sacrificing, willing to give up dignity and reputation for the sake of the poor and vulnerable. One who is willing to die for the worst of people as well as the best. One who despite betrayal, injustice and abuse cries out forgiveness. One who fulfils the heart of the law whilst dismissing the legalism. One who endures loneliness, despair and suffering, for the joy of restored, loving relationship with people. One who allows himself to be judged and condemned. One who speaks up for the oppressed. One who lifts others, who gets his hands dirty in the messiness of life. One who overcomes in the power of God and defeats, even death.

This isn’t a sideswipe at church from someone perched on their lofty, holier than thou, mountain top. I'm part of the problem. It isn’t a complaint against so many of the wonderful, Christ-like individuals who comprise the church. In truth, there is much to commend, both in the present and the past – a truth often overlooked by the media and hidden by people’s general disinterest. Yet the question persists in my mind. What picture does the world see, what image of God do we display? 

For those of us 'in' church, who have met with the extraordinary love of Jesus, how can we so misrepresent that passion, that person, by such a timid and tepid response? For the sake of those who don't yet know Jesus, how can we more accurately represent the one whose church it is? Doesn't it require something more radical than a slightly tweaked personal agenda? Doesn't it need an unbalanced, slightly unhinged, faith endued madness that is willing to risk everything for the sake of others? Can we truly represent a God who invades enemy territory as a baby and wins victory by being crucified, by living like everyone else? 

I know this heart-cry stirs in many -  the question is how, what do we do? Let's not still be asking the question this time next year.

Friday, 5 May 2017


The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).

We are fractured people: Our bodies are fractured from our souls, our souls from our spirit. Our bodies grow old and sick, our souls lose hope and suffer depression whilst our spirits, hidden from view most of the time, are deeply yearning for relationship with their creator and the person they truly are.

Of course, for much of the time, this brokenness is invisible, both to ourselves and to those around. For a start, we develop coping mechanisms: medicines and cosmetics for the body, busy-ness, CBT and more medicines for our soul, Eastern mysticism, new-age, religion for our spirit. It makes the underlying malaise feels normal, to be expected, just part of life.

But Paul, writing to his friends in Rome, points to something profound. It isn’t ‘part of life’ it’s a form of death. Life isn’t supposed to be a constant round of patching up or covering over or enduring the brokenness. 

In the Bible, righteousness means ‘the state that is acceptable to God’ and peace (shalom) means wholeness. Brokenness is not a state that God intended for us nor one in which He is content to leave us. Something much better has been won for us through Jesus. In His life on earth He experienced first-hand the full extent of that brokenness. Through His death and resurrection, He broke brokenness and killed death. ‘By his stripes, we are healed’

When the love of God comes in to our life, healing comes. Increasingly we are knit back together; body, soul and spirit. Then the life-giving, strengthening joy of God can flow once more. Through our souls, through our bodies and cause our spirit to soar.